The verse novel is a tricky feat to pull off, and comparatively rare for that reason. But Shari Green's novels in verse make it look easy, as she tackles complex themes, like inclusion and mental health, in her decorated middle grade books.
Her newest is Game Face (Groundwood Books), which follows 13-year old Jonah in his quest to succeed as his hockey team's goalie. The problem isn't dedication or talent – it's the endless intrusive thoughts that follow Jonah on and off the ice. Paralyzed with anxiety about letting down his teammates or, even worse, his grieving father, he decides that if he can make in the high-stress goalie position, he can do anything.
Even as he grieves the loss of his mother, a loss that has kicked his father's own anxiety into overdrive, Jonah battles through with his best friend Ty at his side. But when Ty suffers an unexpected and critical medical issue, leaving Jonah alone, Jonah realizes his has to do the bravest thing he has yet – ask for help.
Exploring ideas of finding who is on our team in sport and in life, as well as grief, family, friendship, and ambition, Game Face is a fast-paced and authentic, making it instantly relatable for young readers. We're speaking with Green today about Game Face and how she came to write it, including the class of kids who got a front row seat for the book's creation, her own experiences with anxiety informing Jonah's arc, and her sweet tradition of family dedications.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
I wrote Game Face during the 2018-2019 school year. I was paired with a grade 4/5 class in Vancouver that year, as a mentor for the #KidsNeedMentors program. Along with writing tips and book recommendations that I shared in my role as mentor, I gave the students regular updates on my progress as I drafted Game Face. In turn they gave me loads of encouragement. Such a fun and motivating writing experience!
As for how it started? Maybe it really started back in 1973, as I cheered on the Habs in the playoffs, sitting beside my Dad who was rooting for the Leafs. Jump ahead a few decades, and I’d become a “hockey mom” as well as a fan, so when I eventually found a hockey story brewing, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I was excited to tell a story that included this sport I love, but it wasn’t until I got to know Jonah (the main character) that I felt compelled to write Game Face. The first things I wrote were random poems showing how anxiety impacted Jonah both on and off the ice. Some of those were revised and became part of the book, and some were cut, but they were all necessary for helping me find my way into the story.
How did you choose the setting? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I chose to keep the location ambiguous to allow readers to imagine it wherever it suits them, but in my mind, the story is set in Edmonton. I needed a city big enough to have multiple community arenas and cold enough that outdoor rinks are part of winter life. I used to live in Edmonton, and two of my kids played quite a few years of hockey there. (Shoutout to all the kids who’ve spent winter Saturdays at Edmonton’s outdoor rinks!) It seemed perfect for Jonah’s story.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
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My heart was absolutely with Jonah. Writing his story in first person meant I spent a lot of time in his head, and wow, I have so much compassion for that kid—his dreams, his sorrows, his struggles.
That said, I admit I really adore Rose. She’s quirky, empathetic, and wiser than I was at her age. Rose wasn’t in the story at first. I’d thought Lewis (Jonah’s best friend’s brother) was going to play a bigger part, but both Rose and Oma showed up instead, and I’m really glad they did.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Thirteen-year-old Jonah has big hockey dreams, a best friend, and a plan to prove he’s not like his anxiety-controlled dad, but when Jonah’s own anxiety amps up, it threatens to ruin everything.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
My personal experience gave me a good starting point—my experience as a nurse, as a hockey fan, and as a person with anxiety—but I still needed to do some research in all these areas. So, off to the library! I researched anxiety in kids and teens, and read personal stories of competitive athletes with mental illness. I also connected with a medical specialist about Ty’s condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), talked to others about their experiences with anxiety, and talked to a school counsellor about their role and approach when working with a student with anxiety. I also ran the manuscript past a few hockey players for their feedback on all things hockey. Then, I just let Jonah be Jonah, experiencing anxiety (and hockey, and relationships) in his own unique way, trusting that the background research I’d done would ensure Jonah’s experience felt authentic to readers.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
Game Face is my fourth middle-grade novel, and each of these four books is dedicated to one of my four children. In each book, there’s something that would’ve really resonated with a certain one of my kids when they were a middle-grade reader. Game Face is dedicated to my oldest son, Nick. As a kid, he was all hockey, all the time—and yes, that included hours upon hours at the outdoor rink, even at -30!
Shari Green's middle-grade verse novels include Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, an IYL White Ravens selection; Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, a Schneider Family Book Award winner, Junior Library Guild selection, IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities selection, and USBBY Outstanding International Books selection; and Missing Mike, an NCTE Notable Verse Novels selection and USBBY Outstanding International Books selection. Shari lives on Vancouver Island, BC.